While the immune privilege nature of the eye affords significant protection to corneal grafts, immunologic rejection is the leading cause of graft failure. Class II antigens are normally absent or expressed at very low levels in normal cornea. The role that class II antigens play in causing graft rejection is particularly interesting. Class II molecules are present on many cells of the immune system, and therefore are important in modulating and mediating immune reactions. The absence of class II bearing cells in the cornea leads to the interesting issue of whether- or not those antigens can induce immune rejection of a corneal graft. In the current study we have made use of a pair of congenic rat strains that differ only at class II loci to determine the impact of these antigens on corneal graft survival. Central corneal grafts were not rejected. Recipients preimmunized with skin grafts rejected 100% of the class II disparate corneas with a median survival time (MST) of 15.5 days. When class II disparate Lan- gerhans-cell-containing (LC+) corneas were grafted, the corneas were not rejected, but they immunized the recipients as evidenced by the rejection of a second corneal graft on the contralateral eye. Immunofluorescent stains demonstrated transient expression of class II antigens on graft epithelium after transplantation. This temporary appearance of class II provides a target for rejection in the preimmunized animals but is of insufficient duration to both prime naive animals and provide a target for antigraft effectors.
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